Perceptions that universities are secondary players in Australia’s much-anticipated Jobs and Skills Summit may have been reinforced by Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, who made vocational education the subject of the first announcement of the forum.
Opening the summit in Canberra, Mr Albanese said the country’s leaders had agreed to fund an additional 180,000 free vocational college places as part of a “billion dollar training blitz”.
Places will be made available at the country’s public training schools, or TAFE. The costs will be shared by the federal, state and territory governments after their leaders reached an agreement at an August 31 meeting of the prime minister, state premiers and territorial chief ministers.
That didn’t stop TAFE’s representative body from hailing the announcement as the “first major outcome” of the summit. Jenny Dodd, CEO of TAFE Directors Australia, said it was “a tremendous vote of confidence in the power of the country’s TAFE system to drive the skills revolution”.
“TAFE institutes across Australia will continue to provide the majority of high-value and often more complex qualifications that will be essential to improving productivity and social outcomes,” she said.
The Australian Education Union (AEU), which represents TAFE teachers, said the new pledge comes on top of the Labor Party’s pre-election pledge to secure 465,000 free TAFE places.
“TAFE is the best place to make sure the workers we need get the skills and knowledge to fill the workforce gaps,” said AEU Federal President Correna Haythorpe.
While universities have highlighted labor shortages in professions that require degrees, such as engineering and teaching, the summit appears more focused on jobs requiring professional certificates and degrees. A concept paper released ahead of the summit referred to “training” more than a dozen times, but only mentioned “higher education” once.
The body representing universities said it welcomed the additional TAFE places “to ensure the workforce has the skilled people it needs”.
“Australia needs strong and functioning sectors in higher education and vocational education,” said Universities Australia chief executive Catriona Jackson, who is attending the forum.
“As we enter the first day of the Jobs and Skills Summit, we look forward to working with colleagues across the TAFE sector – as well as government, business and labor – to help prepare the workforce- work for the future.”
Independent Tertiary Education Council Australia chief executive Troy Williams also welcomed the commitment to fund additional training places. “But directing funding exclusively to TAFE doesn’t always produce the best results for students, employers, or taxpayers,” he said.
Large federal state training commitments do not always have a happy ending in Australia. The previous Labor government’s Productivity Places scheme, launched in 2008 with a commitment of up to A$2.1bn (£1.2bn), was supposed to guarantee some 700,000 vocational training places. But the program was mismanaged and was eventually scrapped midway through its five-year tenure.